EDMONTON — Workers were taking a huge, glowing sign off a shuttered Edmonton furniture store as David Holdsworth walked by.
When he was told the old neon sign was destined for the junk pile, he convinced a former owner of the Canadian Furniture Company to give it to him instead.
It wasn’t garbage, Holdsworth argued. It was a piece of art.
That was a decade ago, and since then the urban designer with the City of Edmonton has collected more unwanted neon signs and spearheaded Canada’s first neon sign museum with help from the Alberta Sign Association.
The Museum of Vancouver has a permanent exhibit of some of its city’s iconic neon signs, but Edmonton’s collection stands as its own museum — and because it’s outdoors for everyone to see, it’s free.
Officials flicked the switch on the downtown Neon Sign Museum on a cold night in February. The gleaming gallery currently contains eight historic and refurbished neon signs erected on a brick wall on a revitalized stretch of 104 Street just south of 104 Avenue.
Among the signs are those for Cliff’s Auto Parts, Georgia Baths and Mike’s News. The oldest sign _ promoting Pantages Theatre, which opened in 1913 — isn’t up yet. It’s one of four more signs still being refurbished that will be up on the museum wall soon, says Holdsworth.
The wall, owned and donated for the museum’s use by Telus, has space for 30 signs. Holdsworth says the museum may recreate other recognizable signs that have disappeared from Edmonton’s landscape, such as the one that once belonged to Hub Cigar & Newstand, among the longest running businesses in the Old Strathcona neighbourhood.
Neon signs started disappearing from Edmonton buildings in the 1970s, says Holdsworth. “There was a heck of a lot of neon at one point. Every business had a big sign protruding out … it was perceived to be a lot of visual clutter.”
So Edmonton created new bylaws to restrict their use, joining a trend that was redesigning signs across North America. Most business signs now are powered by cheaper and more energy-efficient LED lights.
But nothing is as nostalgic as neon.
The museum’s pink, red and yellow signs are turned on each night just before dusk. And it doesn’t take long to take them all in — just walk by and look up.
Tim Pedrick, president of the Alberta Sign Association, recommends grabbing a pint of brew across the street at the Mercer Tavern and relaxing by one of the windows that has a view of all the museum’s signs.
The pub also put up a neon sign on its building to fit in more with its museum neighbour. And Pedrick says although it’s impossible to see, the Mercer’s sign contains tiles imprinted with historical details of the museum’s signs.
Pedrick salvaged an old Canadian National Railway sign for the museum while rummaging through an outbuilding at the Alberta Railway Museum on the northeast side of the city.
He says no two neon signs are alike. Each one is handmade, with hand-blown glass tubes, giving it personality and character.
But, of course, neon signs can also be finicky in wind, rain and cold weather. And not all the museum’s signs are always on at the same time.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says Pedrick.
“That’s what makes the museum so authentic.”
If You Go …
Where: Southwest corner of 104 Street and 104 Avenue.
When: Best to go at night when the lights are brightest.
What: Eight neon signs are currently up, with four to be added soon.